Judge finds police officer ‘mistaken and ignorant’ as arrested grandmother wins substantial damages

The core of this article is reproduced with the kind permission of Iain Gould, one of the country’s leading police action lawyers. It has been a privilege to deal with Iain and his senior DPP Law colleague, John Hagan, over the past ten years, writes Neil Wilby.

This is an account of a case involving Greater Manchester Police, about whom much is written elsewhere on this website. The force was placed in ‘Special Measures’ by the Home Secretary in December last year.

To those familiar with that journalistic output, what follows will not unduly surprise, except the remarkable tenacity of a victim of police misconduct and, of course, those representing her so skilfully and professionally in the almost inevitable civil claim that resulted.

This is the story of the events leading up to that claim and all that follows.

The right to participate in a peaceful public rally or political protest is, quite rightly, one of the most cherished hallmarks of a liberal democratic society, and it is quite proper that the right to public assembly be preserved from encroachment by heavy-handed agents of the state who either do not know what the law is, or who are abusing their privileged position of law enforcement.

One such victim of heavy-handed and unconstitutional policing was Iain Gould’s client, Sharon Binks (pictured above), who on 19th May 2018 had travelled from the North-East to Manchester in order to participate in a Remembrance March for the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing which had occurred on 22nd May 2017.  Sharon was a single mother and grandmother, then aged 48, and was then, as she is now, of entirely good character. She is the founder of the campaigning group, Justice For Women And Children which was born of her terrifying experience with GMP.

At no point did Sharon engage, or attempt to engage, in anything which could be remotely described as anti-social or disorderly behaviour, but she was, nevertheless, assaulted and battered by GMP officers: Principally, PC Ben Rigby.

Sharon had been unable to find friends with whom she was due to meet, but did bump into a male acquaintance and, with this man and some others, made her way peaceably to St Peter’s Square in central Manchester. There, along with the small group of which Sharon was part, found their route blocked by police officers who stated that a group conducting a ‘counter protest’ had also congregated in St Peter’s Square.

Sharon had with her at the time a non-alcoholic drink, namely a plastic cup containing lime and soda.  Sharon and her companions were approached by the police officers, and Sharon was questioned by an officer as to the contents of her drink, and she allowed the officer to confirm by smell that it contained no alcohol. A peaceful discussion took place between the officers and some of the men with whom Sharon had been walking; no disorder was taking place, and other members of the public were freely coming and going around them.  

Sharon then heard a female officer giving instructions for “Section 35” notices to be issued, to ‘disperse’ Sharon and her companions from the area.

At this point, Sharon decided that, as she was unfamiliar with her surroundings in Manchester and had been unable to find the friends with whom she had originally intended to meet up, she would return to Piccadilly railway station and go home.

However, she was then accosted by PC Rigby who demanded her name and address on the basis that he wanted to issue her with a Section 35 notice.

In response Sharon, who had done nothing wrong, and who could not reasonably have been suspected of having done anything wrong, stated that she was leaving the area in any event. However PC Rigby was insistent that he wanted to issue her with a Section 35 notice and that she must give him her details.

Sharon correctly believed that she had no obligation to give the officer her personal details and, therefore, declined to do so.

Another officer then approached and requested that Sharon surrender her drink (not withstanding that it was not alcoholic), which she did.

Sharon then attempted to walk away (in order to return to the railway station – in the opposite direction to the ‘counter protest’) only to find PC Rigby taking hold of her by the arm and pulling her backwards. 

PC Rigby then further seized hold of Sharon’s wrist and informed her that she was under arrest. He did not give a reason. He and his colleague then marched her towards a nearby police van, in which she was required to sit.

Sharon, who was understandably shocked and disturbed by what was happening to her, began to record events on her mobile phone.  She maintained that there had been no basis for arrest to which PC Rigby replied “I have arrested you for failing to provide your details on request.”

PC Rigby, displaying an arrogant and uncaring attitude, ignored Sharon’s reasonable protests that she had been arrested for doing nothing more than standing on the street, repeatedly requested Sharon’s surname. When she refused to give it, PC Rigby then suddenly lunged forwards in an attempt to seize Sharon’s mobile phone, thereby interrupting the recording, which then ceased. This is some of the footage of the incident that has been shared on the YouTube channel. Some viewers may find the violence and screams disturbing:

When Sharon attempted to stop PC Rigby from taking her phone, PC O’Connell joined his colleague and the two officers brutally handcuffed Sharon behind her back. During this process, PC Rigby punched Sharon twice in the back with his clenched fist and kneed her in the side of the head – acts of unjustified aggression which would constitute criminal behaviour if perpetrated by a member of the public, but which when perpetrated by police officers is often disguised behind the euphemism of “distraction strikes” (as, indeed, PC Rigby maintained was the case here).

The force used by the two officers against Sharon caused her to scream out in distress. It is notable that when PC O’Connell then exited the van, the scene outside was entirely peaceful. The only ‘anti-social behaviour’ was that which had been perpetrated against a helpless woman in the back of the police van by the two male officers.

Sharon was then removed to a transport vehicle where she was searched and told that she was now further under arrest for allegedly assaulting PCs Ben Rigby and Jason O’Connell – which was in fact the reverse of the truth and a most outrageous falsehood, but which is in the experience of Iain Gould in the course of his professional work, sadly, a common tactic of officers who know or suspect that they have in fact committed an assault upon a member of the public.

Due to the extreme tightness of the handcuffs, Sharon’s suffered an open cut and her wrists started bleeding, which led to the handcuffs being removed, and she was transported to a police station where her detention was authorised. She was then, humiliatingly, required to provide fingerprints, a DNA sample and to be photographed. Sharon was so distressed by what was happening to her that she suffered a panic attack whilst in the police cell, shaking uncontrollably and having difficulty breathing.  She was still shaking when a solicitor attended upon her.

Sharon was interviewed under caution, following which she was charged with assaulting both PC Rigby and PC O’Connell in the execution of their duty.

As an innocent person of entirely good character, it was extremely distressing for Sharon to face these false charges, which she fully believed to arise from police manipulation and lies, but she had to live with them hanging over her head until her first appearance before the Magistrates  court on 26th June 2018, when she discovered that, only the night before, the Crown Prosecution Service had discontinued the proceedings due to lack of evidence.

Sharon subsequently made a formal police complaint, which was investigated by GMP’s Professional Standards Branch (PSB) and, in due course, as happens with the majority of even meritorious complaints, rejected by them.

Fortunately, that was not the end of the matter, as Sharon approached Iain Gould in order to pursue a claim against GMP for infringement of her civil rights .

Dispersal Orders

Section 35 of the Anti –Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced what are commonly known as “Dispersal Orders”.  These Section 35 Orders may only be issued provided an authorisation has first been granted under Section 34 of the same Act by a senior police officer.  Furthermore and very importantly –

Directions given under Section 35 Orders do not require a person to provide their details on request, contrary to PC Rigby’s asserted belief; and

No offence is committed where a person simply fails to provide details for the purposes of a Section 35 Notice.

The Section 34 authority had been given by Superintendent Chris Hill to empower officers to disperse anyone within a designated zone of the city centre, for the alleged purpose of averting disorder between two ‘rival’  protest groups, who were both otherwise, lawfully, present in the city centre.

A dispersal authority takes effect when the officer issues, to any person in the designated locality, a notice entitled ‘Direction To Leave’.

There is no requirement in law for the recipient of such a notice to have to provide their name, address or personal details before or when the notice is issued to them.

For PC Rigby to arrest Sharon for a failure to provide her personal details was therefore entirely unlawful under the provisions of Section 35 of the 2014 Act.

PC Rigby subsequently sought to rely upon Section 50 of the Police Reform Act 2002 which does require a person to provide their name and address to a police constable “If a constable in uniform has reason to believe that a person has been acting or is acting in an anti-social manner……”

However, the case which Iain Gould and Sharon’s barrister, Nick Stanage, successfully argued at trial, was that the provisions of Section 50 did not apply in this situation, as Sharon could not be described as acting in an anti-social manner – she had done nothing other than to stand and talk (in a reasonable and polite manner) in the street whilst holding a non-alcoholic drink, and, indeed, she had then attempted to walk away from St Peter’s Square (not towards any protest) immediately before PC Rigby grabbed hold of her.

It was also notable that when PC Rigby first arrested Sharon he did not, as the law requires, explain the grounds for her arrest, and did not do so at all until she was in the police van when he stated “I have arrested you for failing to provide your details upon request.”

As explained above, given that Sharon was not, and could not reasonably have presumed to have been, committing any anti-social activity at the time of her arrest the assertion that she could be arrested for failing to provide her details can only have arisen as a result of a misunderstanding (whether deliberate or not) by PC Rigby of Section 35 powers and a confusion of those powers with the separate powers granted by Section 50 of the Police Reform Act.

The crucial distinction is that Section 35 is a ‘pre-emptive’ power to disperse, whereas Section 50 requires anti-social behaviour (causing harassment, alarm or distress to any person) to have already been committed; it cannot be used in ‘anticipation’ of anti-social behaviour by a person.  

Court proceedings were issued by DPP Law, on behalf of Sharon, which were strenuously contested by Greater Manchester Police and the matter proceeded to a three-day trial at Manchester County Court in July 2021 where, after incisive and compelling advocacy from Mr Stanage, Her Honour Judge Evans ultimately gave judgment in Sharon’s favour.

Under rigorous cross examination by Sharon’s barrister, PC Rigby admitted:

·  Sharon was not harassing or distressing anyone;

·  Her actions in walking down the street in the company of other protesters were NOT enough to arrest her, but only to issue a Section 35 notice;

·  The rival protest group were so far away from where PC Rigby was at the time, that he couldn’t actually see them.

Judge Evans went on to, quite correctly, identify that the evidence did not suggest that PC Rigby (or his superiors) believed that Sharon had, or might have, already engaged in anti-social behaviour, and the written statement PC Rigby subsequently made to attempt to justify Sharon’s arrest did not show any appreciation that theoretical ‘future’ anti-social behaviour is not a justification for a Section 50 demand for details.

The judge’s ultimate conclusion was that PC Rigby had applied a Section 35 test to the exercise of Section 50 powers and had thereby unlawfully arrested Sharon, who was not committing any anti-social behaviour. Sharon was therefore successful in her claims for both false imprisonment and assault and battery.

The judge also found that PC Rigby was mistaken and ignorant” as to what powers he had under Section 35 and Section 50 of the respective Acts, but that in her opinion he did not act maliciously or take a deliberate decision to effect a wrongful arrest.

As the judge quite rightly stated, however, it is not reasonable for a police constable to be mistaken as to the law.

It is the opinion of Iain Gould that the consequences of such ‘mistakes’, often born out of the arrogance of power, and for which apology is very rarely offered by the police (and still has not been in this case) are extremely harmful to the health of a liberal and democratic society, tending at once to cause real damage to innocent peoples’ lives, to curtail the liberty of society as a whole (by the ‘chipping away’ of long established rights), and to engender public mistrust in the institution of policing.

HHJ Evans ultimately made a significant award of damages in Sharon’s favour, including aggravated damages to reflect the distressing circumstances of this arrest of a woman of good character, which took place in public by an ignorant and high-handed officer who through that ignorance (or one might add, arrogance) over-rode Sharon’s exercise of her lawful right not to have to give her personal details to the police, by means of both an unlawful arrest and battery.

Whether the police will learn lessons from this verdict, in terms of future policing of public protests and the education of their officers in the understanding and application of their powers remains to be seen, although my suspicion is that in PC Rigby’s case the problem arose from one of mindset rather than a lack of technical knowledge of the law. That is to say, he is one of the significant number of police officers who take great, and often aggressive, umbrage at their self-perceived authority and/or ability to dispense orders to the public  being ‘flouted’ and he reacted accordingly in an ill-judged and intemperate manner, grabbing hold of Sharon and unlawfully arresting her.

Rather than leave this piece with reflections on the conduct of PC Rigby, Iain Gould reserves his final words on this case to Sharon herself: She showed bravery and determination in bringing her case, despite having been subject to the trauma of first a criminal prosecution, and then the rejection of her legitimate complaint by the Professional Standards Branch of Greater Manchester Police.  Sharon had to deal with the police continuing to contest her claim and had ultimately to sit through a three-day trial, during which she was extensively cross examined by the police barrister, and suffered numerous baseless attacks on her character and conduct. Sharon was, in my opinion, quite right to declare PC Rigby and PC O’Connell ‘bullies’ when they assaulted her; and she had the great courage to stand up to those bullies, and the institution which protected them and whom, during the legal battle that followed, scraped the internet in an unsuccessful attempt to smear her.

Ultimately, just over three years after her unlawful arrest, Sharon was able to hear the court uphold her rights and declare judgment in her favour. Her strength and spirit in seeing this case through to the end, for the benefit of all concerned, is warmly applauded – and should include the officers of Greater Manchester Police and those members of the public who will, in future, come into contact with them in similar situations.

The first case in which Iain Gould and Neil Wilby were involved together, as lawyer and journalist, coincidentally featured the same barrister, Nick Stanage. Whom, along with Iain, successfully prosecuted a civil claim against West Yorkshire Police in not dissimilar circumstances: A peacemaker mistakenly set upon, brutalised and then smeared by overbearing police officers.

The memory of an interview with the victim, Bradford man Anwar Gillespie, at the conclusion of proceedings still lingers today. Notably, the fear and hurt in Mr Gillespie’s eyes as he recounted what happened just yards away from where we sat in his home in the Canterbury district of the city. Not just the battering he took, but the behaviour of the police force for years afterwards, the lingering taint of racism and the fear they will return and take ‘revenge’ for the reversal in the court proceedings. Iain’s account of that case can be read here.

The press offices of both GMP and the Mayor, who has political oversight of the force, have been approached for a statement regarding the outcome of the civil claim. Enquiries have also been made regarding the status of any misconduct proceedings that may have been instituted following the judge’s fact-finding and whether the chief constable will be issuing an apology to Sharon Binks. That remorse should also reflect some notably poor behaviour in the courtroom by three of his officers, including Supt Colette Rose, which, at one point, led to a public rebuke by a circuit judge.

Supt Rose was a chief inspector at the time of the incident involving Sharon, codenamed Operation Tudor, and deployed as Bronze Commander. The operation was instituted, the police say, to ensure public safety and prevent disorder. Not for the first time, the only disorder, it seems, was caused by them – and not by the peaceful protesters.

GMP does have ‘previous’ for misdemeanours at protests. Although this piece concerned serious (and familiar) failings of GMP’s troubled hierarchy, rather than frontline officers: (read more here).

Page last updated at 0745hrs on Tuesday 10th August, 2021

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Photo credit: MEN

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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